Writing Perspectives from Eastern Europe: Blog Three

Personal Reflections on Writing Instruction in Russia

By Natalia V. Smirnova MA

PhD Student, Open University, UK/ State University of St. Petersburg, Russia

Deputy Head of the Department of Foreign Languages

National Research University Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg

My purpose is to provide a reflection on writing instruction at present and current approaches to integrating writing instruction in Russian universities. In Russia, writing in Russian (L1) has been studied in a number of disciplines: Literary studies, Linguistics and Teaching Foreign Languages, Education and Pedagogy, Philosophy though few pedagogical implications have been made for the university context. Writing instruction has been mostly developing in the field of English as Foreign Language (EFL). Russian tradition of EFL treats writing as a skill (competence) and teaching writing is based not only on the UK EFL pedagogical tradition but is deeply rooted in the L1/L2 writing instruction scholarship of the 19th century (Smirnova, 2015a). As a result, while there is a systematic approach to teaching writing in English (L2), university curriculum seems to lack sufficient L1 writing instruction.

Teaching L1 writing in disciplines is mostly an individual teacher stance on what/how to teach, and perhaps on whether to teach L1 writing. Despite the fact that a majority of university teachers agree that L1 writing is not a naturally developing skill, its instruction seems to be too fragmented and too localized (Shchemeleva & Smirnova, 2015). Moreover, there are almost no forums for disseminating teaching/researching L1 writing experience (in contrast with L2) that could serve as a platform for developing a local model of writing instruction.

Given that L1 writing instruction is fragmented and localized, I would like to illustrate the university writing context by sharing my experience of working in one Russian research-intensive university. Writing instruction in L1 is provided only at the entry level when freshmen students undertake a course in Philosophy. This course is rooted in rhetoric and theory of argumentation as a part of philosophy and aims at providing students with disciplinary argumentation and research skills rather than general writing skills.

Last year, we (me as an EFL instructor and a teacher of Philosophy) ran a redesigned course for students majoring in history. A series of lectures were ran in L1 and focused on theory of argumentation and logic, while a series of seminars were ran in L2 and trained students in applying the new concepts to their writing (Smirnova, 2015b). When students undertake the 2-4th years of their study, there is no course in disciplinary writing. Disciplinary writing is seen as something which develops naturally within the process of communication of academic advisors with their students when they are writing their theses and research papers. Our redesigned course is different in that it addresses disciplinary writing through L2.

Unlike L1 writing instruction, teaching writing in L2 is systematic across the four years of study (writing is taught as one of the four skills). During the first two years students learn general academic writing skills. During the 3rd and 4th years of study students learn the basics of disciplinary writing. This emphasis on teaching L2 writing can be explained by the status of English as the global language of science (Lillis, 2001). Yet, the focus is primarily on writing to produce (essays, research articles, theses) rather than on writing as a process. As a result, students seem to not acquire necessary and wide range of writing sub-skills (planning, drafting, revising, editing, expressing writer’s voice etc.) (Smirnova, 2015c).

It seems that writing in L1 has a strong theoretical base and is closely-related to meaning-making, though it lacks proper pedagogical models. In contrast, while L2 writing instruction is systematic, it treats writing as a technical skill only and ignores some theoretical assumptions that writing is a social practice and is a key element of literacy (Lillis, 2001; Lillis & Curry, 2010).

Overall, Russian writing instruction tradition seems to be hidden (underexplored) in a great variety of local contexts (high schools, universities, regional educational standards) across Russia and there is much which international scholars can learn from (e.g. Butler, Trosclair, Zhou & Wei, 2014). This locality can be seen in contemporary local writing instruction that seems to be shaped by three traditions. First, there is currently a call for researching writing as a social practice by taking a UK perspective in which writing as a mode of meaning-making empowers learners to succeed in university studies and in their future careers (Shchemeleva & Smirnova, 2015). Second, there is also a call for integrating writing instruction in the university curricular and adapt experience of the USA approach (Shchemeleva & Smirnova, 2015; Smirnova, 2015c). Third, increasingly there is more attention given to providing writing instruction both in L1 and L2 and developing bilingual writers within disciplines (Smirnova, 2015b).


Butler, D.B., Trosclair, E., Zhou, Y., Wei, M. (2014). Student and teacher perceptions of academic English writing in Russia. Teaching English for Academic and Specific Purposes, 2(2). Retrieved December 15, 2014, from http://espeap.junis.ni.ac.rs/index.php/espeap/article/view/132

Harbord, J. (2010). Writing in Central and Eastern Europe: Stakeholders and directions in initiating change. Across the Disciplines, 7. Retrieved March 6, 2015, from http://wac.colostate.edu/atd/articles/harbord2010.cfm

Lillis, T. & Curry, M.J. (2010) Academic writing in a global context. London: Routledge.

Lillis, T. (2001). Student writing: access, regulation, desire. Literacies. UK: Routledge.

Smirnova, N.V. (2015a) History of teaching writing in Russia: key approaches and methods (from 17th to 20th century) (forthcoming).

Smirnova, N.V. (2015b). Writing-to-learn instruction in L1 and L2 as a platform for historical reasoning. Journal of writing research. (forthcoming)

Smirnova, N.V. (2015c). Writing-for-publication: Online pedagogy for post graduate research writing. Edited collection Post/graduate writing pedagogies and research literacies in the 21st century, editors Badenhorst, Cecile and Cally Guerin, Emerald (forthcoming).

Shchemeleva, I., Smirnova, N. V. (2015). Academic writing within a university setting: challenges and perspectives (The case of Russia). In edited collection based on the AWEAST conference in Romania (forthcoming)

Academic Writing in Russia: A Writing Center Perspective

By Ivan Eubanks, Ph. D.

New Economic School

Assistant Professor of Humanities & Languages

Director, Merrill Lynch Writing & Communication Center

Chief Editor of the English Division, Educational Studies / Voprosy obrazovania

Editor in Chief, Pushkin Review

As for the growing interest in academic writing in Russia, I believe there is a specific reason behind it. Russia has no universities ranked in the top 100 worldwide, and only a handful in the top 500. The reason is not that Russian institutions are less valuable, but that faculty in Russian institutions less frequently publish in English-language international venues and less frequently work on international collaborations than colleagues from many other countries. Thus a lot of good Russian research may be published mainly in domestic Russian-language journals, many of which are not indexed outside of Russia and therefore don’t have great impact factors. In response, the Russian minister of education has become interested in educational reform, and the Russian government has provided incentives for universities to get their faculty to publish in international venues and top ranked journals, many of which are in English.

This has led to two problems.  One is that faculty need training in genre awareness, information literacy, and other aspects of academic writing. What passes for a decent article here, for example, might be viewed as disorganized (structurally deficient) if it were translated into English and submitted to an American journal.  Similarly, using evidence, responding to other sources, and citation are all things that are done differently here. Thus a large part of the new interest in writing instruction is therefore concentrated on faculty training.

But training faculty is only a short-term solution. The impetus to offer writing classes to students and graduate students comes, in my opinion, from an altogether appropriate long-term strategy. If those students learn to write well, and if they learn to adapt to different discourse communities early in their careers, the ones who go on to become academics should feel more comfortable writing for international audiences.

Writing instruction is only one small part of this whole trend in Russia. Other parts involve hiring faculty from outside Russia, setting up exchange programs around the world, offering dual degree programs (e.g., students at St. Petersburg State University who study in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences get a degree from SPb State and Bard College, who helped set up the program), and encouraging collaborative research among Russian academics and those from other countries. Also, the old degree system (specialist, candidate of sciences, doctor, professor) is giving way to the American model (bachelor, master, doctorate), as several high profile institutions are beginning to adopt it.

In summary, I think the emergence of writing instruction in Russia is part of a more comprehensive and aptly conceived movement for educational reform, which involves moving away from the German model that Russians initially adopted and toward an Anglo-American model.

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